When standing on the shores of this popular lake in South Minneapolis, it’s hard to believe that it was once a swamp called Mud Lake.
Mud Lake (more commonly known as Rice Lake) was renamed Lake Hiawatha in 1925 after the hero in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha.
The Minneapolis Park Board originally wanted to get rid of the lake in the late 1800s and plans were drafted to dam its Minnehaha Creek outlet. With the outlet dammed, the water would be diverted to Lake Nokomis to ensure continued water flow over Minnehaha Falls. Fortunately, these plans were never executed and this portion of Minnehaha Creek is now home to a dazzling array of birds and filled with the sounds of Red-winged Blackbirds all summer long.
In the early 1900s, the park board’s attention turned to Lake Nokomis (also later renamed for the famous poem by Longfellow). In 1908, the lake was known as Lake Amelia and was purchased for $63,500. Park Superintendent Theodore Wirth advocated for the purchase of Lake Hiawatha at that time and for several years to come, but he was met with dissent. People felt that the swampy lake could be acquired any time. With the purchase of Lake Nokomis, Wirth embarked on the most expensive single project in the park board’s history: the dredging and filling operation to reshape the lake.
After years of advocating for the purchase of Lake Hiawatha, the park board finally agreed in 1922 because of the desire to build a new golf course. The first two courses built in the city were in north Minneapolis and were so successful, there was a desire to create a new one for those in the south. Due to the increased development of southern Minneapolis, however, the price of swampy Lake Hiawatha and its surrounding land had increased significantly – the new purchase price was $550,000.
Construction on the golf course and the dredging of the Lake Hiawatha began in 1929, the course opened for play in 1934. According to the Minneapolis Parks Board, golf play dropped dramatically during the Great Depression and Lake Hiawatha was the only profitable golf course in the city during the 1930s.
Today, Lake Hiawatha is a popular spot for swimming, fishing and bird watching. It’s hard to imagine the undesirable swamp land it once was in the 1890s.
The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board’s History of Lake Hiawatha Park was a primary source used in this article.